IF YOU DRIVE DOWN CASS AVENUE in north St. Louis, you will see a typical residential area: several red brick homes, a high school, a tidy row of trees lining the sidewalk. And because this is St. Louis, you will also see a 19th-century Palladian-style villa, built in 1858 by Mark Twain’s second cousin.
James Clemens Jr. was a prominent figure when he lived in St. Louis. A successful businessman, he was one of the richest men in the city, so his relationship to the famed author added little weight. (In fact, he apparently lent money to help Twain and his family during financial downtimes.)
But today, the main connection that Clemens has to St. Louis resides in his Cass Avenue property, which he built for his wife, Eliza, after she died from cholera.
Clemens hired plaster artist Porter White to reproduce Eliza’s image in the house’s plaster works. Her face, smiling and framed with curls, could be seen above window lintels, in the ornamental ceiling moldings, and above the mantels. Her depictions are what eventually inspired the home’s nickname, “The Valentine’s Mansion.”
BORN IN 17971 IN DANVILLE, KENTUCKY, Clemens began his career as a clerk. Then, when Danville was incorporated and taxes were levied against its citizens in 1810, Clemens volunteered to collect taxes via his hand pistol, which quickly earned him a reputation around town.
Soon after, Clemens went into business with his grandfather, James Clemens Sr., selling saltpeter to the Army. The earnings allowed Clemens to move to St. Louis in 1816 to open his own shop, selling items ranging from furs to livestock to home goods. He was prudent and frugal, and his fortune grew. By the time he was 40 years old, Clemens’ personal inventory included real estate holdings, a horse and carriage, and other business partnerships.
With that growing fortune came a life in the public eye. According to a letter written by Clemens’ great-granddaughter Lucille in 1966, Clemens was remembered as “a cold, austere man who, in the days of his affluence, always rode about in a closed carriage, wore gloves in public, and carried a stout cane with him because of his deep-seated fear of dogs.” But his aloof personality did nothing to damage his romantic endeavors. As one of the wealthiest, most eligible bachelors in town, Clemens showed no signs of settling down in marriage during his first 15 years here. So it came as a shock to friends and family members when he announced that he was engaged to the shy, demure Eliza Mullanphy.
THE YOUNGEST DAUGHTER of John Mullanphy, St. Louis’ first millionaire and a prominent Irish Catholic, Eliza was only 21 when she married Clemens in 1833. Rumors that her parents did not approve of the union were never confirmed but are likely, considering Clemens’ reputation and the 21-year age difference. In fact, Eliza’s sister Mary was married almost exactly a year prior to Eliza, an event that was publicized in all of the local papers, while the only record of Eliza’s wedding is the marriage records from the Old Cathedral, where they held the ceremony. Just six months after their marriage, Eliza’s father fell ill and passed away. His estate was divided among his children, further increasing Clemens’ fortune.
The following years would be a whirlwind of activity. Clemens expanded his business into property development and banking. He was constantly called upon for charitable and civic service, eventually becoming a director of the Bank of the United States in St. Louis, one of the incorporators of the St. Louis Gas Light Company, president of the Irish Emigrant Society, and an alderman. In 1841, he retired from merchandising to manage his and his wife’s estates.
DURING THE TIME THAT HE WAS WORKING, Clemens was involved in several lawsuits, both as defendant and plaintiff. Clemens was said to be diligent and thorough in his work, and he followed up with every debt, credit, and loan. Rather than use force or aggression as he did in Kentucky, Clemens took the judicial route in his legal proceedings. When it came to business, he was described as private and calculating but also kind-hearted.
“He had many peculiarities, eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. His true inwardness was little understood by the outside world. The truth is, he was in it, but not in it. No one had, when truthfully touched, a more open, generous, kinder, or more magnanimous heart. His benefactions were a thousand-fold, while he was as hard as a rock in what he thought his rights, while he would chaffer on the divide of a hair in a settlement, yet that same rock when rightly struck became soft as water, as his charities silently and unostentatiously flowed into poor, needy or worthy hands.” —Article excerpt from the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer in 1878
Meanwhile, Eliza oversaw the household. The couple had 12 children, though only seven lived past infancy. Many articles describe Eliza to be not only beautiful and elegant but gracious and philanthropic.
“If the husband was the ‘bread winner,’ she was the ‘bread saver’ of the family,” reads one 1878 article from The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer. “For while they resided on the large farm, on Olive Street Road, she hoarded out the marketable products of the place.”
In 1849, Eliza was pregnant with twins. But tragedy struck that August, when the cholera epidemic swept through St. Louis and claimed the life of their 2-year-old son, Jeremiah. Eliza later gave birth to twin girls and, two years later, another son, also named Jeremiah. In 1852, cholera struck the Clemens family once again, this time claiming the life of Eliza at just 41 years of age.
OVERCOME WITH GRIEF and left with seven willful children, it was expected that Clemens would eventually remarry. He did not. Instead, he purchased a piece of land in north St. Louis on Cass Avenue. There, Clemens built a house in Eliza’s honor where he could see his beloved’s face every day.
Elinor Matineau Coyle’s book Old St. Louis Homes 1764-1865 and the Stories They Tell described the property as “the only house in St. Louis with a built-in ghost.”
Clemens commissioned architect Patrick Walsh to design the Greek Revival-style mansion. One of his only requests: that the estate be fireproof. After the Great St. Louis Fire of 1849, Clemens joined the board to establish St. Louis’ first fire department and decided that his next residence would be built to withstand any inferno. In accordance with his wishes, Walsh built the home with cast-iron materials and fixtures, as well as soaring marble columns and mantle pieces, fine stucco, and brick work.
After the mansion’s completion, in 1858, the family moved in. As the children grew, so did Clemens’ disapproval of their actions. His oldest son, Bryan Mullanphy Clemens, ran for public office several times to no avail. It was rumored that James thought little of his son’s political career and that their relationship faltered.
Clemens’ eldest daughter, Catherine, also proved to be a handful. The spitting image of her mother, she had many suitors drawn to her large dark eyes, curly hair, and fair skin. Her attention was drawn to Joseph Bryon Cates, a cashier at the Union Bank of Missouri, a widower 11 years older than Catherine. She arranged a meeting between her father and beau, knowing that Clemens would object to the union. The meeting went poorly, and Cates later wrote a letter to Clemens that touted his character and insisted that while he was not rich, he could support “Miss Kate.”
His efforts did nothing to dissuade Clemens, but Catherine and Joseph married anyway. Catherine had befriended the nuns at the Visitation Convent next door and enlisted their help. Catherine wore two dresses at once and hid personal items under her hoop skirt, so she could transfer them from home to the sisters for safekeeping. Soon after, she and Joseph married. Though none of her family was in attendance, she did send a letter to her sister Helen:
I was married this morning at 6 1/2 o clock at our Parish Church. I wrote to Pa to explain the affair and ask his forgiveness for I can never return to his home. I do not expect to see any of the family as I know you will not want to see me. Kiss them all and tell them good-bye, and believe me you’re cherished. Sister Kate. Please send my clothes by bearer of this. Good bye.
Joseph died 14 years later, leaving Kate with two children. Three years later, she remarried General Daniel Frost, a wealthy military general. It was a union that her father would more likely have approved of, had he not passed away in 1878.
It was said that Clemens reconciled with all of his children shortly before his death. His daughter Kate even received written word from Clemens’ doctor shortly before his demise and went to care for him in his final hours. Just before he passed, Clemens sent for a priest to come to the house and on his deathbed converted to Catholicism, so he could spend an eternity with his beloved Eliza.
But his passing occurred before he was able to revise his will, and his past disapprovals of his three oldest children, Bryan, Catherine, and Helen (who’d also eloped), was reflected in their inheritance:
“From the disobedience and disrespectful conduct to me of my daughter Catherine Jane Clemens, wife of Joseph Bryon Cates, I give to her $100 only, which is all she is to have from my estate.”
He left similarly small sums to his other aforementioned two children, though he willed $100 to “the colored woman residing on the premises,” presumably the housekeeper, every year for the rest of her life. He left the remainder of his estate to three of his other children, James, Jeremiah, and Alice.
IN 1887, THE CLEMENS HEIRS sold the estate and land for $25,000 to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. The sisters had a long history of service in St. Louis and were able to convert the house into a convent. They also added a chapel. The house remained in the Sisters’ care until 1949, when it was purchased by the Vincentian Fathers and Brothers. They held onto the property for some time, and the buildings became a city landmark in 1971. It was sold again in 1979 and continued to change ownership many times, usually to other social service organizations, before eventually falling into disrepair.
By 2000, the Berean Bible Society was using the property as a homeless shelter. Eventually, the building became so rundown, the group had to vacate it. A Buddhist organization bought the property in 2001 with efforts to restore the house and use it as a retreat center, but they were unable to raise the necessary funds. Major structural damage plagued the building, and the city condemned the the property for safety reasons.
Developer Paul McKee acquired the property in 2009 with plans to restore it. The restoration would require massive funds and tax breaks from the state, but the anticipated financing was not approved. Klitzing Welsch Associates evaluated and rezoned it in 2010 to be converted to senior living apartments, but lack of funding derailed those plans.
Minor stabilization efforts have been made in the interior, but the cast-iron ornaments and interior porticos have been stolen, the chapel roof and wall have collapsed, and interior flooring has caved in. Many preservation enthusiasts now question whether rehabilitation is even possible.
Today, the Clemens house sits empty, a shell of its former self and a solemn reminder of one of St. Louis’ great families.